By Hussein Rashid
According to a recently released study about American religious membership, Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States. What many Americans may not realise is that as this group grows its religious leadership is also rapidly evolving.
When it comes to Jews and Christians, the congregational leader – the rabbi or priest – serves multiple roles. They are leaders of religious life, serving as congregational organisers and worship leaders. But unlike rabbis and priests in the United States, imams don’t tend to serve in pastoral care capacities such as visiting the sick and the elderly, counselling, and leading programmes for youth.
Muslim American religious leadership is mainly trained in the United States, focusing on religious scholarship, or in traditional institutions overseas – neither of which emphasise pastoral care. Nor are imams trained in reaching out to media, and mosques do not generally serve as community centres in the United States in the same way that churches and synagogues do.
But now the nature of religious leadership in the Muslim American community is changing. Imams are taking on wide-ranging roles involving pastoral care, and more work with youth.
Why is this happening? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that more imams are American-born. While there are no concrete statistics yet, several experts on Islam in America have noted this trend. But the key reason is that greater attention is being directed towards the needs of congregants, and almost two-thirds of America’s Muslims are born in the United States. Many of them view the pastoral role as an integral part of religious leadership. Muslim American young people expect engaged, hands-on clergy –and clergy, in turn, are answering the call.
Religious leaders must be able to speak in the language and culture of the people they represent. In America, that means tending to one of the most diverse Muslim populations in the world, especially as distinctions linked to ethnicity or sects within Islam become less and less important for the Muslim American community.
New York is a microcosm of some of these positive changes. Khalid Latif and Khalil Abdur-Rashid, chaplains of New York University and Columbia University respectively, are creating open spaces where all Muslims are welcome. Sunnis and Shias pray side-by-side, with the rainbow of different races present together.
The university setting also allows them to do community programming. For instance, many universities now have Ramadan “fast-a-thons”, in which students of all backgrounds are encouraged to donate the cost of one meal to charity. In many respects, Latif and Abdur-Rashid represent the future of what a Muslim American leadership will look like: open, community focused and trained to fulfil a wide variety of roles.
More importantly, they work with other individuals and institutions. While in the past Muslims have often been underrepresented in local community programs, this is also shifting. More imams are learning how to actively engage with the communities they live in. For example, in addition to serving the New York University community, Latif is also a chaplain with the New York City Police Department.
But encouraging imams to take on a wider communal role is only part of the story. What is needed – and what we are seeing more and more – is a variety of actors working together. Religious figures, academics, activists and organisers are collectively functioning as the emerging leadership of the Muslim American community.
By acknowledging the diffuse nature of the community’s leadership, it benefits everyone; they can do what they do best, and share the work with other individuals. At the same time, Muslim American imams are also embracing diversity within their own roles and changing the face of Islam in America.
Hussein Rashid is a professor at Hofstra University and Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches.